November 28, 2013
By Joe Maniscalco
Olean, NY – Staffers at a 186-bed hospital in Upstate New York who say they've been threatened and intimidated after speaking out against unfair labor practices and short staffing issues that could potentially impact patient health – will be spending Thanksgiving Day wondering if the votes they cast back in October will be enough to win union representation.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has yet to determine the status of 18 contested votes cast in an election held on October 25, in which 45 hospital staffers voted to join the Communication Workers of America (CWA), and 55 others voted no.
Hospital management is hoping to have the votes from employees working as Operating Room technicians, as well as those staffing the stress and sleep labs, thrown out. While at the same time, preserving ballots from LPNs who actually work in a casino in nearby Salamanca, New York, and who the union regards as shift managers.
"The reasons why they [staffers] called us are as varied as their job titles," said Ann Converso, a registered nurse with 36 years caring for patients, and a member of the CWA's Healthcare Coordinating Council.
Some staffers at Olean General Hospital say that although they have accrued vacation time, management has not allowed them to take the time off that they've earned because the unit they work in lacks adequate shift coverage. Still others maintain that they are often forced to work through lunch breaks because the hospital fails to provide relief personnel.
"A lot of times, we just don't get to have Lunch," said Kim Schauer, an LPN working at the hospital's outpatient surgery center.
The 20-hour shifts that Operating Room technicians are reportedly forced to work with little rest, could potentially be more than a hardship for hard-pressed hospital employees, however.
"You're in the OR for 20 hours, you get a couple of hours sleep, and then you're back on duty in the morning," Converso said. "From a patient perspective – who the heck wants them in my OR the next morning? I really wouldn't want to be on your table the next day."
Olean General Hospital refused to comment on allegations involving potentially dangerous short staffing, unfair labor practices, or charges that management has actively sought to divide some workers, and intimidate others.
According to Converso, management called in one respiratory therapist and told him, 'You're a really good respiratory therapist – we're just really worried about your future here."
The election to determine union representation was originally slated for October 10, but had to be rescheduled due to the government shutdown. CWA officials fear that the delay has given management ample time to "work on other people" with similarly veiled threats.
Nurses at Olean General Hospital, meanwhile, have been working without a contract since May, when an extension going back to January also expired. The New York State Nursing Association – the union representing Olean General Hospital nurses – has a long history of bargaining for successful contracts at the institution, but now is also grappling with short staffing, unfair pay and unscheduled work details.
Olean General Hospital is part of the Upper Allegheny Healthcare system and is located at 515 Main Street in Olean, NY. In merging with Bradford Regional Medical Center, critics charge that the dynamics inside the small, rural hospital have changed for the worse.
"Very few folks in the top managerial roles are actually people that residents know," Converso said. "It's someone from Buffalo, it's someone from Pennsylvania or New York City making all these rules that workers have no say in. Everything really has changed here."
What's worse, according to critics, is that those changes are not simply confined to Olean General Hospital.
"It's all of these small hospitals where it used to be like a mom and pop store," Converso added. "Now, it's like a supermarket that's owned by somebody in Europe."
Schauer says that she supports union representation because after 25 years on the job, she now also fears losing her retirement benefits.
The NLRB is expected to rule on the eligibility of the 18 contested votes sometime before Christmas.